Learning abhinaya from a master of the art

Leela Samson (Pic: Anoop Arora)

This workshop really was one of its kind, or at least my first, pretty much. However, those of us writing about were allowed to report only a part of it. From the 28th to the 30th of July, Aditi Mangaldas hosted a three-day workshop on abhinaya in dance conducted by Guru Leela Samson at the Drishtikon Studio in Delhi. There were going to be two goddesses of dance on one platform – Leelaji and Aditi – and abhinaya being the subject, my heart really was set on seeing at least part of it. Leelaji and Aditi need no introduction. Nevertheless, for those who don’t know them, Aditi is the disciple of Kumudini Lakhiaji and Pt Birju Maharaj. Leela Samson, one of the doyens of Bharatnatyam in India, was born in 1951. As a 9-year-old, she was sent to Kalakshetra to learn classical dance under Rukmini Devi Arundale. She has taught at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra and Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Delhi, and has performed all over India and abroad. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990, and besides that, several other awards and honours like the Nritya Choodamani, Kalaimamani (2005) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1999-2000). She has occupied multiple prestigious posts, including heading Kalakshetra, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Central Board of Film Certification.

Pic: Anoop Arora

This workshop was held over three days at the Drishtikon Dance Studio tucked deep within Sainik Farms in Delhi, near Aditi’s home. The workshop was to focus on the abhinaya solely, which was, to me, another novelty. The final day’s session, from 2.30-5.30pm, was open to observers such as me. Firstly, as I entered the premises, it gave off vibrations of quiet, peace and creativity. There were green trees all around and a very well-lit studio with a lot of sunlight streaming in. This was the setting of the demonstrations. Leelaji sat on the floor with students facing her all around, in utter silence and concentration. The padam being taught was Indendu Vacchitura by Subbarama Dikshitar.
The khandita nayika has been waiting all night for her lover, waking up and dozing off intermittently. In the morning, when she hears the knock, she hastens to open the door for Krishna. She looks at him and is very annoyed. She asks him, ‘how did you come here?’ in a very sarcastic manner. There is a hint of adbhuta here. ‘Is it by mistake that you are here? Did you think that this was the other woman’s house? She does not live on this street. So don’t say a word and leave’ – thus went the padam.

Pic: Anoop Arora

Here, the interpretations that we can give, Leelaji explained, are that ‘the other woman does not live on this street’ has a connotation that the streets were divided according to the occupation of the people staying there. So, since she is of an inferior family, she is not supposed to ‘live on this street’. Here, the important word is ‘that’ woman. The nayika is in love with the nayak, shringara is always there, she is expecting him, but he comes late. Here, she is extremely annoyed, but since she is a khandita nayika, she is totally in control and will not display her true emotions. And so, the ‘po po ra’ could be very cold, or very angry. Deconstructing ‘indendu’, the interpretations could be that ‘you are like a fruit which is out of season. Did you forget your way?’ Here, the male dancers could interpret the attitude of the nayak as he approaches the house and knocks on the door. This sanchari is a complete bhava in itself, it doesn’t need to be complemented, she explained. The tala and raga have to be maintained all throughout the abhinaya.

Pic: Anoop Arora

The sarcasm in the line is laced with surprise and amusement also. The anupallavi says ‘you lifted the Mandargiri, and you are the Kasturirangesha, you lifted the turtle on your back during the samudra manthan, and you have fallen prey to the smiles of that woman, who has teeth as even as the seeds of the pomegranate? You are so great, and you have fallen to such a weakness?’ The sarcasm is in the contrast.

In the charnam, it says ‘the moon is at its zenith, and you could still not see the correct house?’ Again, there is sarcasm, or interpreting it in this way – ‘it was too bright for you to see the correct house? And you got intimate with the girl with fish-like eyes. Have you lost your mind? You have become such a weakling, though you are a god to the universe. That girl that you made love to and spent the whole night with is definitely not me’. This can be enacted with sarcasm at its peak.
The padam does not indicate if the other girl even exists. But the nayika has built this wall of jealousy between herself and the nayak. She closes the door on him, and it’s only when she turns away that she has an outburst of despondency, Leelaji explained, giving the ending one more variation. All of the above were enacted by Leelaji with numerous variations, each one with different bhavas and moods, the abhinaya depicting an awe-inspiring number of emotions till each line was dripping with meaning. It was a near-perfect demonstration of abhinaya, which her students, from veterans like Aditi to rank newbies, attempted to adapt and replicate.

Pic: Anoop Arora

After the session, the impression that stayed with me, someone had never seen Bharatnatyam being taught, was that I had never imagined that abhinaya could be taught. I had always thought that abhinaya is mostly manodharma and it comes to you as you venture deeper into your psyche as a performer. But here, you could see the sincerity of a guru and the participants to peel the layers of every word of a composition. The calm and the surroundings created an aura where your inner self became very perceptive. The abhinaya was neither understated nor overstated, just appropriate for a khandita nayika. There were no unnecessary eye or facial expressions, and yet conveyed the acid in the words – the anger of a woman who has spent the whole night waiting for her lover.
That was followed by a really rare treat - a solo abhinaya piece by Leelaji. It was an ashtapadi by Jayadev – ‘Madhave ma kuru maninee manam aye’. The music for the ashtapadi had been composed by Pt Jasraj, originally for Madhavi Mudgal. The sakhi here is the guru between aatma and paramatma, bringing them together. Radha’s state is forlorn in her maan (arrogance) and viraha (the pain of separation). Krishna too is pained by the separation, and here, he is the abhisarika. He too is burning in separation from her. The sakhi tells Radha that this is not the time for you to keep him waiting. He is looking for you everywhere. The wind is blowing, the bees are hovering over the lotuses, the birds are mating, and she should not be here, away from him. In fact, the others make fun of her for her obstinacy. The sakhi begs Radha to go and see Krishna, who is lying on a bed of wet lotuses to assuage his burning. Radha is persuaded, they are united, and the solicitous sakhi, with tearful eyes and much satisfaction, sees them walking away, arm-in-arm. The lyrics are very beautiful, with an alliteration in the first line. The depiction of emotions by Leelaji could not be described in words. Her eyes conveyed all the emotions and were moist with tears waiting to flow out. Her hands conveyed all – the words were barely needed. Though there was no nritta, you could feel the music growing on you. In the last lines, she went on to show how abhinaya can weave the magic without being overrated. It stayed with me, lingering in my spiritual world long afterwards.

Later, when everyone sat down at Aditi’s home for some invigorating chai and poha, Leelaji spoke at some leisure about the workshop, her own apprehensions about it, and why she respected the participants for signing up for it.

How was your experience with the students during the workshop?
The workshop was a wonderful idea, but also a little scary for me, actually, to deal with people who are from everything, from contemporary to classical dance, different styles – Kathak, Odissi, Bharatnatyam – everyone’s expectations… I’m so relieved I can’t tell you that the three days went well, the kids liked it, and that they did a lot, learnt a lot. In the beginning, there was this fear, this indifference, but by the afternoon of the first day, I could feel them warming to the idea because when you tie their body up, you can imagine that it is very difficult for them (to dance without using their whole body). You only emote, no movements of the feet or hands, and with very foreign sahitya. We had to base it on some sahitya, so we first based it on a very general kind of ‘Astam Gatho Ravi’ – one whole day for just that. We taught them how to look at the sahitya. Then we went to specific pieces – it was fun. I enjoyed it too.

How was it to interact with them and what was the process of teaching abhinaya like?
I’m just amazed that they came so far. It’s such an intricate little place (Drishtikon) – it is so far away even for those who live right here in Delhi. (The participants) They find it, for three days they spend their time, some of them are married with babies. I have a lot of respect for that – that you give time to nurture yourself. And it’s not because of me but because they wanted to nurture (themselves). They’re obviously missing something. Each one of them is with their own guru, but they’re missing something, and if I have been able to fill that gap a little bit, even very sporadically, then I’m happy. Because we can only forge forward in small, mini steps, we can’t hope to make paradigm movement. It doesn’t happen (like that) – in things like abhinaya, there’s small progression. Once if it opens up something in your mind, then you’ll feel… and for many of them, it’ll give them the confidence to try something, to at least think about something. Otherwise, they would never consider that aspect. They’ve been told, don’t look at it, don’t do it. (They’ve been told) You have no right to do it. That is a big problem.

Sometimes, while doing the abhinaya, you get so involved in the character that you tend to forget eveything else. Does that happen to you, and how do you maintain that objectivity?
When you start learning and doing abhinaya, you feel you can’t even pretend to be that person. And now you feel you can be that person for a little while, why not? It’s a wonderful opportunity to enter somebody else’s skin. And the beauty of it – you really get involved in the beauty of it.

Note: This article first appeared in narthaki.com